Mary Dejevsky: Pull British troops out of Iraq

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The Independent Online

Almost a quarter of a century has passed since that short sharp conflict in the South Atlantic we know as the Falklands war. While many openly questioned the wisdom of the enterprise even before the task force set sail, the doubts were always less about principle than practicality. Was it not absurd, reckless even, to dispatch the Royal Navy half way around the world for the sake of a cluster of small islands left over from the Empire?

Well, yes, it was. But it was also audacious and right. And if British servicemen had to die in the cause, so be it. In the higher order of things, the sacrifices were honourable and worthwhile.

I remember those weeks. I remember the doubts and shared some of them. I remember the speed with which our famously reserved population gave itself over to jingoistic passion and wrapped itself in the flag. I remember, too, the national rejoicing that enveloped the fleet on its return, a little bruised and depleted, but its mission expertly accomplished.

How different has been the response to the war in Iraq. Next to no pride accompanied our soldiers into the fray. The only Union flags on display have draped coffins. Audacious this war may have been in its ambition, but it was wrong - and time has only compounded the misgivings.

Almost three years and 100 deaths since the Prime Minister took his fateful decision to join President Bush's project for regime-change in Iraq, any possible argument in favour of our involvement has been exhausted. The reasons Mr Blair gave for contributing British troops in the first place have been discredited. There were no weapons; there was no threat to regional, international, nor yet British security. There was no need for military action.

The humanitarian argument, always mood music rather than justification for the British deployment, was diminished as soon as the evils of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib prison were exposed. When abused Sunni prisoners were then discovered in basements under the jurisdiction of the new Iraqi administration, the circle was complete. The occupiers had been unable - or unwilling? - to prevent the resumption of old ways.

Even then, it was just about possible to defend the British troop presence with the mantra, "We are where we are". Having thoroughly messed up the Iraqis' country for them - by failing to ensure security, lacking a realistic plan for the occupation and foolishly casting home-grown resistance as foreign terrorism - we had a responsibility, did we not, to put it right?

Indeed we did. But by then the country was spinning out of control. Realistically, all that our troops could do was help to provide safe conditions for Iraqis to vote and leave them to it. The elections designed to lay the foundation for representative institutions are now complete. It is ruthless to say so, but Iraqis must now rely on themselves. The longer the foreign troops stay, the more Iraq's elected representatives will be seen as stooges of the occupiers. It is in their interest that we leave.

Primarily, though, it is in our own interest. The violence has now spread to southern Iraq, where the British troops are based. They can no longer do the peace-keeping, nation-building, reconstruction they were entrusted with. They have become targets of attack; increasingly, they are the problem, not the solution.

The intervention in Iraq has been damaging, not only for Mr Blair and his government, but for Britain. Our foreign diplomacy has been hobbled by the rift with our European allies and with the Muslim world. There has been friction with the Muslim minority in Britain. Withdrawing the troops will not repair the harm overnight, but at least it would remove the initial cause.

Yesterday, we heard from the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, and from the Defence Secretary, John Reid, of plans to reduce the number of British troops as and when districts stabilised. It is a fine aspiration, to wish to leave in good order, at a time, as is said, "of our choosing".

Given the negligible influence that British troops can now exert on the situation, however, there is no reason to delay. If the violence escalates into civil war, there will be nothing that even the much bigger US military presence can do to stop it. And whether a withdrawal is interpreted as a victory for "terrorism" rather depends whether you regard the violence as "terrorism" or popular "resistance".

Yes, there's a risk that Iraq will descend into mayhem; and yes, a unilateral British withdrawal could damage our reputation as a reliable ally. But there is such a thing - still - as the national interest, and Mr Blair should heed its call.